Sunday, February 1, 2015

I Love Math And I Hate The Fields Medal

By Cathy O'Neill

I’ve loved math for as long as I can remember. When I was five I played with Spirographs and learned about prime numbers, and in high school I solved the Rubik’s cube with group theory. Gorgeous stuff! Inspiring!

In college, I was privileged to learn algebra (and later, Galois theory) from Ken Ribet, who became my friend. He brought me to dinner with all sorts of amazing mathematicians: Serge Lang, J. P. Serre, Barry Mazur, John Tate, his Berkeley colleagues Hendrik Lenstra and Robert Coleman, of course, and many others.

Many of the characters behind the story of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem were people I had met at dinner parties, including Ken himself. Math was discussed in between slices of Cheese Board Pizza and fresh salad mixes from the Berkeley Bowl.

The best thing about these wonderful people was how joyful they were about the serious business of doing math. It was a pleasure to them, and it made them smile and even appear wistful if I’d mention my difficulties with tensor products, say. They were incredibly generous to me, and honestly I was spoiled. I had been invited into this society because I loved math and was devoting myself to it, and that was enough for them. Math is, after all, not an individual act; it is a community effort, and progress is to be celebrated and adored. And it wasn’t just any community. It was an exceptionally nice group of people who loved what they did for a living and wanted other cool, smart people to join them.

I mention all this because I want to clarify that in such a community, where math is so revered and celebrated, it is its own reward to prove a theorem and tell your friends about it.

Now that I’ve explained how much I love math, let me explain why I hate the Fields Medal. Through the filter of that award, the group effort I’ve just described is utterly lost, is replaced with a synthetic and false myth of the individual genius working in isolation.

You see, journalism has rules about writing stories that don’t work for math. When journalists are told to “put a face on the story,” they end up with all face and no story. After all, how else is a journalist going to write about progress in some esoteric field?

The mathematics is naturally not within arm’s reach: It is by nature deep and uses multiple layers of metaphor and notation that even trained mathematicians grapple with, never mind a journalist, and never mind a new result on the far edge of what is known. Too often the story becomes about what the mathematician had for breakfast the day of his or her discovery rather than what the discovery itself means.

The Fields Medal, which is easy to understand (“it’s the Nobel Prize for math!”), is thus incredibly and dangerously misleading. It gives the impression that we have these superstars who “have it” and then we have a bunch of wandering nerds who “don’t really have it.” That stereotype is a bad advertisement for mathematics and for mathematicians. Plus, the 40-year-old age limit for the award is just terrible and obviously works against certain people, especially women or men who take parenting seriously. And while the fact that a woman has won the Fields Medal is a good thing, it’s a silver lining on in otherwise big old rain cloud, which I do my best to personally blow away.

Lest I seem somehow mean to the Fields Medal winners, of course they are great mathematicians, all of them. To be sure, there are many other great mathematicians who never get awards, and awards tend to be given to people who already have a lot of resources and don’t need more. Even so, I’m not saying they shouldn’t be celebrated, because they’re awesome, no question about it.

I’m just asking for more celebrations. I would love to see some serious outward-facing science journalism celebrating the incredible collaborative effort that is modern mathematics.

Cathy O’Neil is a mathematician and a data nerd. She wrote Doing Data Science and is working on a book called Weapons of Math Destruction. She writes regularly at